The smell of caste: Leatherwork and scientific knowledge in colonial India

Kapoor, Shivani (2021) The smell of caste: Leatherwork and scientific knowledge in colonial India. South Asia: Journal of South Asia Studies, 44 (5). pp. 983-999. ISSN 856401

[thumbnail of SAJSAS2021.pdf] Text
SAJSAS2021.pdf - Published Version
Restricted to Repository staff only

Download (1MB) | Request a copy


Leather was an important commodity for the British empire in terms of industrial production and scientific innovation. From the mid nineteenth century in India, the British sought to convert leatherwork into a scientific industry. Leather, however, also has a life in caste. The profound stench inherent to the process of leather tanning marks leather workers as polluted. Examining archival material and contemporary ethnography from Uttar Pradesh, this paper examines how the scientific colonial intervention in leatherwork was made complicated due to the sensorial politics of caste. The leather chemist, trained to impart scientific knowledge to leather workers, often failed to negotiate the caste-based sensorial nature of leatherwork, thereby allowing caste to limit the reach of modern science in the industry. Understanding this interaction between colonial science and leatherwork has important consequences for our understanding of the politics of caste and scientific knowledge in India.

Item Type: Article
Keywords: Caste | Leather | Senses | Smell | Uttar Pradesh
Subjects: Social Sciences and humanities > Arts and Humanities > History
Social Sciences and humanities > Social Sciences > Human Factors and Ergonomics
JGU School/Centre: Centre for Writing Studies
Depositing User: Mr. Syed Anas
Date Deposited: 29 Dec 2021 06:48
Last Modified: 17 Jan 2022 16:15
Official URL:
Additional Information: I am grateful to Vebhuti Duggal and Christin Hoene for their ideas on this paper and for organising the ‘Empire and the Senses’ workshop at the University of Kent, Canterbury, in 2019, where this paper was first presented. The suggestions by the three anonymous South Asia peer reviewers were extremely relevant and thought-provoking. Generous and critical comments by Bhoomika Joshi, Praskanva Sinharay, Sushmita Pati and Tanvi Sirari have helped immensely in writing this paper.


Downloads per month over past year

Actions (login required)

View Item
View Item